Valentino Balboni – celebrating the most iconic test driver in the world
It was April 21st 1968 when Valentino Balboni first clocked on, as an apprentice, at the Lamborghini workshop. This new job was the start of something big for young Valentino. Indeed, over the years that followed he rose to the position of test driver, helping to develop cars like the Diablo and the Gallardo, and test driving more Lamborghinis than anyone else in the world. His relationship with the company proved to be so intense and enduring that he even had a version of a car model dedicated to him, as well as a road named after him, albeit unofficially. Indeed, the legacy Valentino Balboni left behind him in Sant’Agata Bolognese is so rich that, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his love affair with the firm, 70 Lamborghinis, coming from 17 different countries, recently gathered in Sant’Agata Bolognese for a fantastic weekend of driving.
The Balboni Highway
Sant’Agata Bolognese was a quiet little place until May 1963, when Automobili Lamborghini, a new company that built supercars, “set up shop” there, specifically at an address in Via Modena, the main road running through the town. The stretch of road in front of the factory became increasingly busy: it was frequently used by cars being tested and developed at the factory, and added to that, it would be used by customers, collecting cars at the facilities or simply coming back for visits. In more recent times the traffic has increased further as a result of people coming here on “pilgrimages”. None of these cars were ever driven particularly slowly, but in an era before speed traps and cameras, there was one man above all who became known for regularly scorching the tarmac of Via Modena: Lamborghini test driver Valentino Balboni. As a sort of in-joke, local people began to refer to Via Modena as the Balboni Highway, and in Lamborghini circles the world over this has now become the official nickname for this particular stretch of road.
An expression used by the Ancient Romans was nomen est omen, meaning that a man’s destiny is written in his name. In Italian, “va- lentino” translates as “he is going pretty slow”, therefore if you are looking to contest the nomen est omen “theory”, you can take the example of Valentino Balboni to prove your point. And if you want a practical demonstration, just find a closed road, a Lamborghini car and ask Balboni to take you for a spin! “It took me long time to get where I am, 50 years of work”, he says smiling. “Probably this is what my name refers to.” It was spring 1968 when Valentino, just out of technical school, had the encounter that would change his life. It was a lazy afternoon and has was playing table football with a friend in the grounds of his local church hall. “The priest had to visit a relative living in nearby Sant’Agata Bolognese,” recalls Balboni, “and he asked us if we wanted to go along for the ride. My friend decided to stay behind, but I accepted, mainly because I always liked a car ride but also because I just wanted to do something different. While he was making his call, I went for a walk and stopped to looked at some car chassis being unloaded from a truck. I was fascinated; they were all well executed, very low and appealing. After a while I started helping the workers push them into the company’s forecourt. When we had finished, the security guard on the gate asked me who I was, and then asked if I might be interested in working with them. A few days later, I gave him a letter introducing myself, or a resume in today’s parlance, soon afterwards I was taken on.
Unbeknown to me, Zambelli, the gateman, was one of Ferruccio Lamborghini’s most trusted men. To begin with I was asked to keep the workshop and tools clean, but that work soon evolved into the routine maintenance on the cars. I still remember how I felt the very first time I was asked to move the cars in and out of the workshop, and how, soon afterwards I rather boldly took the liberty of driving a customer’s Miura around the building. The car was missing the hoods, and I drove it at enough speed to raise a lot of dust, certainly enough to annoy the office staff who were working with their windows open. A complaint was made to the workshop boss and I was “grounded” for a while. Later on, however, I was asked to start test driving cars that had undergone maintenance or repairs, taking them out on open roads, always under the supervision of legendary test driver Bob Wallace. Bob was my mentor and the man who taught me the ropes of what was subsequently to become my most important job”.
If Bob Wallace is the test driver associated with the development of the Miura and Countach, then the Diablo, Murcielago and Gallardo can be considered “Valentino’s models”. The V-10 Gallardo, one of the most successful Lamborghinis ever, manufactured between 2003 and 2013, was built in different limited versions. One of these is the Balboni, created to celebrate Valentino’s particular driving style, and it is truly loved by the 250 lucky customers who managed to purchase one. The LP 550-2 Balboni is a rear-wheel-drive car, about 30 kg lighter than the four-wheel-drive versions. The Balboni was available either with manual or a revised automatic transmission and sported a redeveloped 45% limited slip differential. The trademark of the Balboni is the longitudinal stripe, in contrasting colors, painted on the car. Seven Balbonis took part in the Valentino Balboni 50th Anniversary celebration, which was probably the first time so many have been parked together since the time they were in production. During the meeting Valentino was driving “his” Gallardo Balboni: this car is actually owned by a customer, but it lives in Valentino’s garage and has been put at his complete disposal. It has a perfect number plate too, VA55 BAL.
The Valentino Balboni 50th anniversary gathering
“They came to me some months ago with this idea,” says Valentino, “asking for my approval. The organizers were sure it would be success, but I was not convinced, and more than once I told them that, in my view, they were wasting their money. I turns out I was wrong, absolutely wrong. If I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes, I would never ever have believed that 70 cars, from all over the world, would be brought here for this three-day event to celebrate my 50-year “love affair” with Lamborghini. Looking around at the cars that have been shipped from Australia or the USA, or driven 2000 kilometers from Norway (10 of them), just to honor me, I feel quite overwhelmed. I have no idea how I can ever repay this display of affection.”
The tour celebrating Valentino Balboni
An event celebrating the art of driving can hardly be static, and this one, lasting three days, from May 4th to May 6th, had a packed program: first of all, the cars, headquartered in Bologna, drove to Sant’Agata to visit the Lamborghini Museum at the Lamborghini headquarters, after which they went to the Ferruccio Lamborghini museum managed by the Lamborghini family in Ferruccio’s hometown of Cento (Ferrara). They then moved on to San Cesario sul Panaro, near Modena, to visit revered supercar manufacturer Horacio Pagani and the Pagani facilities. There was a special reason for this visit: Pagani began his illustrious career at Lamborghini, where he was deeply involved in the designing of the Countach 25 Anniversary, a model test driven by Balboni. On the Saturday the long convoy crossed the Apennines , driving through the Futa and Raticosa passes, to Montecatini Terme, to recreate the concours of elegance organised there in the late 1960s by Ferruccio himself, before returning to Bologna in the evening. Finally, on the Sunday the drivers had the opportunity to spend some very happy hours on the racetrack. What a celebration!
All photos courtesy of the author.